Listen to the interview here (mp3)
This interview is part of a series profiling leaders of the Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute, a project of the Center for American Progress’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative. The Institute provides faith-based leaders working on reproductive justice with training and resources in order to strengthen and raise the visibility of their work. You can learn more about this project here.
Joan Lamunyon Sanford is the executive director of the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, or NM RCRC, an organization that is pro-faith, pro-family, and pro-choice. NM RCRC is one of New Mexico’s leading reproductive justice organizations whose programs include abortion funding, all-options clergy counseling, peaceful presence clinic escorts, and legislative advocacy. Joan is also a regional coordinator at Raising Women’s Voices, a national initiative working to ensure women’s voices and concerns are addressed in the health care law. Joan is currently working with faith and secular groups across New Mexico to help educate women about the marketplace exchanges available under the Affordable Care Act.
Joan graduated from the University of New Mexico in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in education and worked as a teacher for 15 years.
Sally Steenland: Welcome, Joan! There’s a lot going on in New Mexico around reproductive choice and rights and justice, particularly in Albuquerque. I want to ask you about an initiative that’s on the ballot for November 19th, where voters in Albuquerque will vote on a ballot measure that, if it passed, would ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Can you tell us a little bit about this ballot measure? In particular, what are the consequences if it would pass, and, also, what’s the strategy behind the ban?
Joan Lamunyon Sanford: Well, this ballot measure would ban access to safe and legal abortion after 20 weeks [of pregnancy] and that would deny a woman the right to make these kinds of complicated decisions over the course of her pregnancy. We believe that decisions about ending a pregnancy should be between a woman, her family, and her doctor, guided by her faith and values. This strategy behind this 20-week ban by these out-of-state and out-of-touch groups who have pushed this measure—they have publically stated their intention is to ban all abortions, altogether. And this is part of an organized effort to prevent New Mexico doctors from giving their patients the best possible care, and it’s aimed at making it impossible for New Mexico women to access safe and legal abortions later in pregnancy.
SS: Supporters of the 20-week ban—it’s also called the fetal-pain ban, bill, or initiative—say that at that stage of development a fetus can feel pain. Now, all of medical science says that’s not true. But emotionally, that can be a powerful claim. So, as we refute that and say, “no, it’s not true,” in terms of medical science, is there moral or emotional language that we can use as well?
JLS: What we do know is that women who are making decisions about abortions later in pregnancy are facing heartbreaking circumstances. They’re looking at serious risks to their health; they’re looking at fetal anomalies. And these out-of-state and out-of-touch groups that have come to New Mexico are really judging our families and showing a callous disregard for the personal circumstances that surround a woman’s decision to end a pregnancy.
SS: As the executive director of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice in New Mexico, you’ve come to know many of these women, and you’ve come to know their stories. What can you tell us?
JLS: Well, as I’ve mentioned to you before, it’s not our place as people of faith to judge these women. We trust them. We trust that they’ve made prayerful, thoughtful decisions about ending a pregnancy. What we do know is that our amazing volunteers provide a welcoming home and safe transportation for these patients, and they do that because of their own faith and values. They support these women who are making personal and complex decisions that are required in order to keep themselves and their families healthy. The clinic staff frequently tell us that our volunteer support for these women while they’re having an abortion makes a real difference in the well-being of the women. And these are women who are away from their home and their own medical provider. They’re usually here because of their financial circumstances, without their spouse or a trusted family member by their side, and our volunteers step in there and provide that support to them.
SS: I want to ask you about religion and abortion. Often, we know that religion is associated with opposition to abortion, and many of those who are pushing the 20-week ban are self-proclaimed people of faith—they’re Catholic, they’re evangelical—and they say they’re motivated to do this work because of their faith; but so are you, and so are the volunteers that you just spoke of. So faith is also on the side of reproductive justice in New Mexico and other places. [What] are ways in which that’s happening? You talked a little bit about the volunteers, which is very powerful, on-the-ground work in terms of service delivery. Can you talk about that some more?
JLS: The Religious Coalition has been in New Mexico since the late 1970s, and people of faith and faith leaders were part of the movement with the Roe v. Wade decision to make sure that abortion was safe and legal for women. People of faith and clergy have been long-time supporters and proponents of reproductive justice, and New Mexico is no different. The faith leaders and people of faith who we are reaching out to have been part of our network for many, many years. So these are people who are long-time supporters of reproductive justice, and they’re ready to stand up and defeat this harmful ballot measure.
They’re talking to their families; they’re talking to the community. We have many congregations and faith communities who have held informational meetings for their members about the ballot measure, and that always results in people signing up to volunteer for our weekly phone banks and neighborhood canvasses. And right now, we have several clergy, and we are hearing from more all the time who want to give their official endorsement to the Respect Albuquerque Women Campaign.
The campaign is a diverse group of women, families, and allied organizations, and we’ve all come together to protect a woman’s ability to make these private medical decision and defeat this callous ballot measure.
SS: Do you have a sense of how things are going? Is anyone taking a poll among voters? Are you up against a steep challenge, or do you have the voters on your side? Do you have any sense of what the outcome might be at the ballot box?
JLS: There was a poll several weeks ago that showed that this was very close, but the organization doing the poll didn’t ask the question in the same way it will be worded on the ballot measure. And our volunteers on the phone bank and the door-to-door canvassers have received just overwhelming support to defeat this measure. And that’s the way that we know that we can win this; [it] is those one-to-one conversations with people who really understand this. This is a long-time New Mexico value of valuing the diversity of our communities and that these are private decisions that are best left in the hands of families.
SS: Well, good luck to you. It’s just a little more than a month away, I guess, right?
JLS: We’re ready. We’ve got volunteers on the ground and some of the members of Respect Albuquerque Women Campaign—Young Women United, Strong Families New Mexico, and ourselves—are working together to talk to communities of color and young people because we know that the voices of those who are most impacted are the ones that need to be front and center here. One of the things that I just love that we’re doing is, once a week, one of our phone banks is a family friendly phone bank. We have childcare there, we have a light dinner, and that phone bank is always in a location that is easily accessible by public transit. That’s just one of the many ways that we’re making sure that this campaign can be inclusive of everybody and include the voices of everyone who will be impacted by this.
SS: What you’re describing—family friendly, motivated volunteers, people of faith working—is so different from the stereotype that opponents paint of people who are pro-choice. How do you get the word out in terms of helping to shift that mindset or that narrative?
JLS: Well, I think we get the word out by talking to people like you. And we just keep doing this work. We’re out there; we’re visible. And the real actions of a person of faith who’s doing this because of their faith does so much more and says so much more than that stereotypical demonizing rhetoric that our opponents like to use.
SS: Joan, thank you very, very much for being with us, and all the best to you and your work, especially in November.
JLS: Thank you very much.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. You can learn more about this project here.